In a landmark federal court ruling intended to resolve the issues of overcrowding and inadequate medical and mental health care in California’s prisons, a special three-judge panel has issued a tentative ruling calling for the early release of tens of thousands of prisoners over the next two to three years.
Through it’s unprecedented ruling, the panel of judges voiced its finding that chronic overcrowding is indeed at the root of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) well documented inability to deliver to its prisoners constitutionally mandated minimum levels of health care, and that massive prisoner releases are the only viable resolution.
“The evidence is compelling that there is no relief other than a prisoner release order that will remedy the unconstitutional prison conditions,” said the judges in a 10 page ruling, led by 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Steven Reinhardt of Los Angeles. The judges said the ruling is meant “To give the parties notice of the likely nature of that final opinion, and to allow them to plan accordingly.”
Though the ruling stopped short of assigning a firm figure to the planned reduction of prisoners, the judges nonetheless clearly indicated what lies ahead. “It is our intention to adopt an order requiring the state to develop a plan to reduce the prison population to 120 percent of the prison’s designed capacity…..within a period of two or three years.”
According to figures released by the state, as of the end of January, California’s prisons held more than 157,000 prisoners in its in-state prisons and satellite facilities, or 188 percent of the designed capacity of 84,000 inmates. A reduction to 120 percent of design capacity would require the release of approximately 57,000 prisoners. Another 6,000 of California’s prisoners are housed in out-of-state facilities, and it is still unclear how the ruling might affect them.
The judges strongly urged the state to meet with the prisoner’s attorneys in an attempt to hammer out an agreement, and they offered the services of a court appointed settlement referee to aid in their discussions. They indicated that they would hold more hearings before issuing a final ruling in the case.
The state’s reaction
California Attorney General Jerry Brown has said the state will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court once the ruling becomes final. Brown, who represented the state in the recent trial, said the court “does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.”
Matthew Cate, secretary of the CDCR, expressed disappointment with the judge’s decision and said the administration is reviewing the tentative ruling before deciding on what steps to take.
“Obviously the governor and I strongly disagree with the panel’s conclusions and our response will be based on how best to protect the public from a court-ordered release of inmates,” Cate said in a statement. “This is not about overcrowding. We are providing a constitutional level of care now; so we have the right to keep these inmates in prison.”
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco said that early releases can be done without necessarily endangering public safety. “I know there is a percentage of inmates who are in for less serious offenses who would not endanger the public directly,” said Ma, who is a member of the Assembly Safety Committee.
History of the lawsuit
The civil rights case began in a Sacramento federal court more than 21 years ago when Jay Lee Gates, an inmate at the Calif. Medical Facility in Vacaville, filed a lawsuit protesting the poor quality of his health care. The case was taken over by prisoner’s rights lawyers and eventually converted into a class action lawsuit and, 19 years ago, assigned to the court of U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento.
Subsequent additional inmates’ lawsuits challenging both medical and mental health care were also morphed into class action lawsuits and assigned to the courtrooms of Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, and U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, of Los Angeles.
Each judge was to rule in their respective cases that prisoners were being provided with unconstitutionally substandard health care. Karlton ruled in 1995 that the state’s prison mental health system violated the Constitution’s 8th Amendment protections on cruel and unusual punishment.
Henderson made a similar 2005 ruling regarding prison medical care, and he appointed a federal receiver to take over the medical system. In his 2005 ruling, Henderson found that an inmate was dying unnecessarily every six to seven days as a direct result of poor quality health care.
under 1995 Prison
Litigation Reform Act
Few could have foreseen the course these separate but similar civil rights cases were destined to travel. Or that the three cases would become joined for landmark litigation and that from them would come historically unprecedented rulings with potentially profound national impact. Rulings that would forever redefine the issue of a state’s sovereign rights versus the rights of prisoners to receive constitutionally mandated levels of health care.
The stage was set when a decision was reached to bind the three cases together, and, for the first time, hold a trial under the auspices of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Previous cases under the Act in other states have resulted in settlements before trials became necessary.
Ironically the Act, which took effect in 1996, was intended to make it harder for inmates to bring lawsuits and to limit the power of federal judges to order remedies in purported cases of abuse. The Act prevents a federal judge from acting alone in such cases, and instead requires the formation of a three-judge special panel in order to proceed.
Henderson, Karlton and Reinhardt were appointed to form such a panel by the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, of which Reinhardt is a member. Each of the three jurists is widely considered as among the most liberal judges in the nine-state appellate circuit. Any ruling by the liberal panel would bypass the normal avenues of appeal and go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is dominated by conservatives. The Supreme Court can overturn, modify or uphold the panel’s decision, or refuse to hear the case entirely.
Following months of trial preparation and evidentiary rulings, the trial opened Nov. 14, 2008 in a San Francisco courtroom and lasted for 14 days.
The trial featured numerous prison and health care experts from both sides. The state presented evidence of massive increases in spending for prison health care and strenuously denied that overcrowding itself was the cause of poor health care. Lawyers for the state pointed out that California currently spends approximately $13,778 annually per inmate on medical care, versus the federal spending of $4,413 per inmate. The average cost of health care coverage for a person in California in 2008 was $4,906.
Prisoner’s attorneys responded with testimony from a variety of prison administrators, including Jeanne Woodford, the former acting director of the CDCR and warden at San Quentin, who testified that the majority of California’s prisons are far too large and overcrowded to be effectively managed on all levels.
The case concluded on Feb. 4 after two days of closing arguments, and the judges released their tentative ruling on Mon., Feb. 9.
Causes leading to overcrowding
The judges, state officials and policy makers credit a variety of factors for causing the overcrowding in California’s prisons. Critics point to the 41,284 prisoners serving time under the 13 year-old three strikes law. Others blame California’s decades long “tough-on-crime” political philosophy and a general reluctance to parole term-to-life prisoners. In addition, over 70,000 parolees are returned to the prisons each year, most for relatively short terms for minor offenses such as failing a drug test.
Prisoner’s attorney Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office said, “We’re thrilled. We think the court made the right decision under the law. The state has known for many years that crowding is out of control and is crippling the prison system.”
Steve Fama, an attorney representing inmates said, “It’s just a matter of finding the ones that would create the least risk if released a couple of months early.”
Lawyers for the inmates agree that the ruling could have national significance on prison reform in other states where inmates could seek population caps on overcrowded facilities.
What happens next
The plaintiff’s lawyers have speculated that the judges may move cautiously in imposing federal mandates upon the state for fear of reversal on appeal, preferring instead to apply pressure to the state to devise its own plan to alleviate the overcrowding.
Kara P. Dansky, a Stanford Law School lecturer, said, “This is one area that the law is unclear on because we’ve never seen a case like this.”
The Supreme Court is expected to look closely at the 11th Amendment, and a state’s sovereign rights versus the 8th Amendment’s protection to individuals against cruel and unusual punishment. Any decision to release inmates must first, according to the FPLA, consider the implications to public safety that such an action might have.
If the state refuses to negotiate, the panel could order a variety of reforms, such as parole reforms, shortened sentences, diversion of non-violent offenders to county programs, etc..
Followed, ultimately, by an appeal to the Supreme Court.
“It’s a pretty comprehensive victory for us,” said Michael Bien, a San Francisco attorney who has represented mentally ill prisoners. “It was a message, a very loud, clear message, that it’s time that the public officials in California took responsibility for their own criminal justice system.”